"The Shipping News"
For most stories to work you need a main character who is vital and active enough to hold your interest. You don't expect to be pulled through a story by a man whom people walk over, who is so modest and ambitionless as to think a job as an ink setter on a newspaper press is life's fulfillment. Things come his way through the actions and motivations of others and yet, as conceived and written in a 1994 novel by E. Annie Proulx, you are vitally interested in his development and growth despite the glacial quality of its progress.
In as challenging a role as any that Kevin Spacey has taken on, but for a totally different reason, he plays Quoyle, an amorphously shaped nerd living in upstate New York. One wonders how such a dull man can wind up with the whirlwind party girl and barroom whore, Petal, (the wily and resourceful Cate Blanchett) but in a case of opposites attracting and, for a brief moment, fulfilling each others missing side, they do. They marry and have a child whom they call Bunny.
Despite Petal's flightiness and need for outside stimulation, Quoyle remains fascinated and in love with Petal (taking too much meaning from simple sex) and raises Bunny on his own. But even he, so slow to anger, is outraged when Petal brings home one of her lovers. As inevitable as day following night, she finally leaves Quoyle and, for the first time showing any interest in Bunny, takes her along.
A fatal car accident on that journey takes Petal's life and Quoyle is first amazed that Bunny wasn't found in the car with her and then mortified when he learns that she had sold her daughter to a slave trader for several thousand dollars. Quoyle rescues his daughter and attempts to return to his life as best he can.
His aunt Agnis Hamm (Judi Dench) shows up for the funeral and convinces him to join her in a return to their family home in the small fishing outport of Killick-Claw, Newfoundland. When they arrive, the family home, on a promontory overlooking the sea, is in bad repair but structurally sound. The winds are so fierce in these unsheltered districts that the house is lashed down by cables.
As they proceed to rebuild the place, which is a stark metaphor for their lives and family history, Quoyle sets out to find a job, his first call at the local newspaper, The Shipping News. Because of his family name -- one very well known in these parts -- he's hired on by editor Tert Card (Pete Postlethwaite) with the blessings of owner Jack Buggit (Scott Glenn) as a reporter, a job for which he professes no experience. His growth in this job parallels the growth he is to experience as a person and is the heart of the story.
He asks about a woman he sees walking along the road and is told about Wavey Prowse (Julianne Moore), director of her own day care center for young children. She has a retarded son and a guarded past, irrelevant details for a man with more mysteries in his own family history than he knows and an attraction that he has to follow. Soon, the details become relevant and they are revealed, hers and his own. Painful histories are nearly inpenetrable in Kinnick-Claw, even your own. But, Quoyle will soon find out about the Quoyles.
E. Annie Proulx's book, from which this picture is adapted, won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1994, probably for the unique content of the story as much as for her style of writing. Defying the difficulties of translating it to film, director Lasse Hallstrom has probably pulled off a nomination with his adaptation and he deserves commendation for his flawless casting, as well. He has certainly proven his abilities in adapting novels, as he did with John Irving's "Cider House Rules" and Joanne Harris' "Chocolat".
The name "Quoyle" is related to "coil", as in rope. Rope and the art of knot tying is a vital part of fishing and a boatman's life. In the book, each chapter is headed with a drawing of a different knot with its purpose outlined. It's a telling image, so closely related to a place exposed to the bountiful and unforgiving sea. Hallstrom uses rope imagery effectively to set and nurture the moods.
"The Shipping News", given its literary nature, stressing keen observation of character as its primary force, might be a hard sell for a wide audience. It's a film that is likely to appeal to a demographic that reads as much as it goes to films. It's also likely to appeal to the members of the Motion Picture Academy in sufficient numbers to produce more than one award nomination. And "Best Picture" is certainly a possibility.
This literary based film is more likely to be a critical success than a boxoffice hit. It certainly appeals to this viewer.